I’ve been trying to write about this for about 4 months, this was the only way I could think to say what I meant.
About six years ago, I used to listen to James Brown’s “Sex Machine” maybe twenty times in a week, all different versions. The studio version is famously sparse—a couple of chords, barely any lyrics other than the words in the title, totally dominated by the rhythm section. In contrast to the hysterics and lush orchestration of, say, Otis Redding records, “Sex Machine” is an exercise in just how much you can strip away and still remain pop music.
But then. If you watch a performance of “Sex Machine,” you’ll notice that there are a million people on stage. Horn players. Dancers. Two drummers. And you worry that some cacophony is about to ensue, instead of the bare-bones studio version. How could so many superfluous, garishly-suited musicians ever reduce their sound down to the finely calibrated pulse of “Sex Machine”?
Of course, the miracle happens; the band is as tightly pulled-together as a black hole, and you realize that James Brown is as much a performer as he is a conductor, waving his ass instead of a baton.
It might seem that what I want to talk about here is the specific virtuosity of a band being tight, or even (ultimately) just about drumming. Not at all.
Another way to approach this is the experience we have all had of looking for a song on YouTube, and only being able to find shitty cell-phone videos of the band performing it, shot from 15 rows back.
Sometimes it recognizably is the song. The famous video of Beyoncé singing “1+1” in her dressing room (shot on Jay-Z’s cell phone) before going onstage to perform it with a full band, is the superior version. But mostly these fan-shot videos are a mess. But it is not (usually) because the band is not tight. Or that Beyoncé in her dressing room is.
Of course what I want to get at is how we hear punk music. Take by contrast to the Beyoncé video the legions of mediocre hardcore songs. (But also how hardcore usually sounds live.) So much recorded hardcore music depends on being heard as… It is as though we re-mix it in our heads, to hear it properly. Or we are ticking off boxes. “Yes, this is in the NYHC style of Agnostic Front, and I like/dislike that.” “Yes, this achieves grindcore velocity.” But that isn’t really what hearing is…
It is as if all the work of making music had been accomplished already, and one just had to pick the chords, the lyrics, the tempo, the breakdown. But that these were all parts that one was choosing from a box, like a Mr. Potato Head.
I don’t think many of us know what it looks like for a hardcore song to be successful.
The problem might be that our original experience of liking a hardcore song—“this is awesome! it’s so fast!”—was applied indiscriminately but correctly, to the great music of Minor Threat and Black Flag and Bad Brains. But later we didn’t go back to see what else was going on. When we hear hardcore that is decidedly not awesome, we don’t have the vocabulary to say why it isn’t.
The Urinals recorded a bunch of music, but it is impossible to hear their songs and think that something is being “assembled in the studio.” The music apparently doesn’t depend upon anything. It is almost like some crazy campfire music—spontaneous, unamplified, sloppy—that has been captured on tape.
Which isn’t to say that The Urinals’ records sound particularly “live.” I am not asking to have some authentic presence summoned up or fabricated for me. Or, I am. But this is what music does.
I’ve been trying to write about this for about 4 months, this was the only way I could think to say what I meant.
Agent Orange- “Your Mother Sucks Cocks in Hell” (1983) EP
Punk has something to teach us. It always has. When I was 16, punk had something to teach me about how not to grow up to be my parents. Bands like Crass, Drop Dead, the Dead Kennedys, and Los Crudos made me feel bad for some unquestioned habits of thought, especially the errors and limitations of a spontaneous political good will. Discharge, on the other hand, made my own thinking look sophisticated and profound. Then there is the whole culture of punk: its utopianism, the beautiful idea that you can “do it yourself,” and a touching belief that music can be a meaningful way to change the world.
But then you turn whatever age. Let’s call it 30. You didn’t change the world. Being an adult has stopped being an exciting initiation. The main feeling is: another decade of this?
And here punk is interesting again. Because life doesn’t care about you. Sure, there are no merit badges for “staying punk,” but only because there aren’t merit badges for anything. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise.
Now, I love philosophy, which has something to say about all this. But it is very high-minded; a lot is at stake in Ethics and Truth and Authenticity and Praxis. Punk starts at the opposite end of human experience: no stakes.
Punk starts from the minimum, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat that still means “I have to go to work today.” Karl Marx thought that mankind would attain its species-being in the free time obtained for human development after the revolution. Punk says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we still have to own it. It can’t wait.
I wrote an introduction to this blog in my very first post, but perhaps I can say more about what this all means to me. I want to say something in a moment about Totalitär, who are not for me just any old band.
When I was in college, I frantically produced a little punk fanzine called Voices Wake Us…, pretentiously named after a line in T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock.” On top of my coursework and doing a weekly radio show, twice a semester I would write this little zine and slap it together with tape and scissors and stolen xerox codes, and send it off into the world. At first, at school, I didn’t have many friends, and this was a way of communicating with—who knows? Somebody. And as I kept doing it, it turned out that the people who were most interested were total strangers. So it was a kind of message in a bottle.
The current blog is something different. I’m not really still getting into new hardcore music—there are no “beginner’s mistakes” as were often to be found in my younger music writing. These are the opinions of a decade or more of thinking and listening and obsessing. New punk music certainly has my ear, but nothing will ever receive as much attention as Negative FX or None of the Above. I’ve sunk a lot of my time into those records: the name for that time being “my youth.”
I’m trying here to set down some things I’ve thought about for a while, and especially conversations that I’ve returned to over and over with friends. Music has a special relationship with friendship, I think. You invite friends over to listen to records, you go to shows together, you make top 10 lists, you trade, you go record shopping, you fight, and your tastes develop—all as friends. It’s hard to imagine such a social aspect to my love of, say, the 19th century novel. The most beautiful and passionate thing I’ve ever written is my dissertation, but I don’t expect any of my friends will ever read it. That’s ok; it’s for me.
A really great movie about friendship was just playing at Film Forum, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” I tried to get my closest friends to go see it, but I don’t think anyone did. They missed out. This is a moving story of friendship, whose message is: our friends are really our own courage to get through life. It’s not something I have, it is an imputed consciousness that resides in my friends and the people who love me. I think this is absolutely true. Friendship, in other words, is not so much a relationship: it is our own substance, lodged in someone else.
But friendships can also be lodged in other things: their substance is external, as it were. This is truest for me with regards to a few bands. Totalitär have a life for me, that is perhaps not empirically “there.” We think that our relationships with other people are shifting things, or compromise-formations, or subject to interests and selfishness and time constraints. But friendship is already situated a bit beyond the two people involved. This is why it can never disappear, but like a talisman something is held there forever. It is a private pleasure and occasional sadness for me to run through instances of this strata… in any case, one of them is Totalitär, a band who have meant a great deal to me in terms of friendship.
Totalitär are the ultimate cult hardcore band. But this is not something you could tell just by listening to them. Unlike the Birthday Party, or Hawkwind, or Dead Moon, their music is not in itself strange or polarizing. That’s just it, though. The “secret” of the band is just the fact that you could mistake them for one of a dozen other Swedish hardcore groups who sound like Discharge (No Security, Meanwhile, Avskum). They are a cult band in the inverse sense of the Eleusinian mysteries: the way of access to their cult-ness is not barred or esoteric—it is rather an open secret.
I’ve written about Discharge on here before, and Totalitär themselves represent one of the great interpretations of Discharge. This is Discharge rendered in geometrical, bulky tones—there’s no “rock music” here, no guitar flash, no lo-fi haziness, no heavy metal creeping in. Only the very abstract, unmelodic difficulty of Discharge—the part of Discharge that moved the punk lyric into the starkest minimalism, the part of Discharge that put cabbage on the cover of punk albums. Call it “arty” if you will.
What Totalitär understood better than anyone was the deranged, mid-tempo Discharge song (“Religion Instigates,” “A Look at Tomorrow”): Discharge as weird pop-punk band. No one else has ever really grasped this (although the Mob 47 choice of Discharge covers is revealing).
Totalitär never toured, they played less than 20 shows in as many years of being a band, many of their records look like generic crust records, I don’t know any of their lyrics (all in Swedish), and their records will never be worth enough money to attract attention. I doubt a box set of their outtakes and demos is forthcoming.
A lot of hardcore is based on “image.” Discharge themselves had one of the coolest looks and most memorable band logos in history; arguably their politics were all image. It would be easy to think that Totalitär didn’t care about image, or that their use of cartoon skeletons and wallpaper patterns was just eccentricity. I think, on the other hand, that all these things matter. You were being told clearly: this wasn’t music for little kids, for someone whose criterion for musical taste was pictures of war victims, or who wanted their hand held.
If this sounds like Totalitär are somehow conceptual and abstruse, things couldn’t be farther from the case. They are catchy and bouncy and even pleasant (in a sense). But this is much more like Wire or Gang of Four’s catchiness and bounciness than (the next closest great band to Totalitär) Lama. It’s never “melodic,” is often just a pulsing patch of tone. The riffs are laid out like big hunks of meat left to dry, just slabs really. The d-beat is like a metronome. There’s something reserved, odd, and wry about this *as* punk music. Hear for yourself. Below is a video for my favorite of their mid-tempo songs, “Intolerans,” and then their entire first EP.
Agnostic Front- Victim in Pain (1984)
I don’t think one really understands America without understanding 1980s hardcore. Not that there’s any great truth written there, any great analysis. You might say that 1980s hardcore *also* does not understand America. But the frustrations, the stupidity, the dirtiness, the moral decay of Reaganism, the death of the 1960s vision of flying to the moon and a “Great Society,” is nowhere more vivid. And this looks a hundred different ways across the map. Negative Approach seem almost to have crawled out of the post-apocalyptic bunkers of Detroit. It’s impossible to imagine Black Flag’s “Wasted” being written anywhere but in the vapid skate-and-surf culture of bleached masculinity that was late 70s Los Angeles, the L.A. of “I forgot my mantra.” I’ve treated of the Dicks and the Austin scene elsewhere. And while Minor Threat’s message of judgmental asceticism was universal precisely because it was so unlocalized, Agnostic Front’s incoherent populism could only come from New York City locals. Agnostic Front are the punk band of the New York Post ideology: its anti-intellectualism, parochial outlook, its melange of spontaneous moral outbursts (against corruption, against corporate greed, against decent blue collar types) combined with its anecdote-centered conservatism: xenophobia, vigilantism, plus the exact mentality that leads to corruption (because it is more “direct” and “gets things done”).
In the world of ideas, then, Agnostic Front are not to be placed along a spectrum from left to right. Their lyrics and image name instead a time and a place. This obviates the cognitive dissonance that I felt as a young punk, trying to sort out my world from the world of my parents, when I first heard Agnostic Front. “But…” I quivered with confusion, “they don’t seem to think the same things as Crass!” Our favorite bands at that age are a kind of ego-ideal, and Agnostic Front were clearly a bad one. And even though I lived in New York at the time, they were more distant from me—more exotic—than the Swedish or Finnish bands I loved.
These are all false problems, of course, but not irrelevant to the experience of listening to Victim in Pain. You can hear Agnostic Front trying to get it right: pleading for understanding, for unity—but at the same time boiling over with contempt, with blind idiotic myopia, with the flailing violence of self-castigation. These are angry, ill-adjusted people, who haven’t put much thought into anything.
Because of the later developments in the New York hardcore scene, namely the Youth Crew movement of straight-edge bands, and the metallic sound that gave the world Madball and Biohazard, it is easy to isolate the New York scene and reduce it to a teleology that could only yield these results. But the Agnostic Front of Victim in Pain is much closer to Crucifix, Poison Idea, or Battalion of Saints than to the Agnostic Front of their second album, Cause for Alarm. Neither do contemporary NY bands like Antidote, Cause for Alarm, and Urban Waste suggest the subsequent emo sludge of Judge, any more than they imply the Beastie Boys.
What, then, are Agnostic Front “about”, if we take away everything that came after this classic statement? Let me digress for a second. Minor Threat stopped being a hardcore band because their hardcore was polemical: against X, Y, and Z. When they went off to college, they got laid and started listening to U2, hence they weren’t interested in making this music anymore. Minor Threat’s hardcore, once their targets (assholes, black people, drunks, religious girlfriends) weren’t directly in front of them, didn’t have any reason to exist. So the third Minor Threat record is just about what does exist: some reflective feelings, and a re-do of the song “Out of Step.” Void, on the other hand, seemingly just go further and further down their own rabbit hole—they “leave” hardcore just by drifting off the page.
Most of the great hardcore bands—Negative Approach, Poison Idea, Negative FX, Black Flag, Jerry’s Kids—are not addressed towards real obstructions that could be circumvented or fixed. The problem is rather an inward brokenness, the arduous slog that is waking up and being a person. “Fix *me*,” says Black Flag. What you get with these bands is the raw pain of just existing in an indifferent world, one that (with Jerry’s Kids) you can hardly recognize as your own.
Agnostic Front are just such a misguided, militant, bolt of confused, fearful terror. Why?, they ask, every day, am I shit upon, blamed? I’m ready to fight ANYONE. But the real cause is not something I can punch. Is it “society”? the “capitalistic prison”? this fucking guy right in front of me? “Should I live my life in a mess? Feel confused and lonely at this moment, but maybe with some time, everything will pile off my mind.”
On Victim in Pain, this agony is thoroughly situated in a real world, one in fact purged of the kind of emasculated self-reflection I am describing. Utterly without cynicism, without cleverness, without insight or intelligence or sympathy, this is the sound of someone scrambling up each day, with blind hope that today might be different, and with no reason to expect that it will be. And not for “naturalist,” deterministic reasons, for which one could blame society—but because life sucks and you are a fuck-up. Almost every song on this album is a record of trying to piece together some dignity—ineptly, self-defeatingly, sometimes—and reject obviously false consolations, to just go on.
The Dicks- “Shit on Me” (live)
There are probably some people who will never be able to get down with a song called “Shit on Me.” Their loss.
In the 1980s, when Austin, Texas was not yet the East Coast’s collective crush object, and its “weirdness” was in no danger, it was home to America’s #1 and #2 best gay hardcore acts: The Dicks and The Big Boys (with MDC occupying an ambiguous third-place, not only because they were not as gay, but also because MDC is kind of bad). The Big Boys had a sunny outlook on life, exemplified in songs like “Fun Fun Fun,” “We’re Not in it to Lose,” and “I Do Care;” The Dicks, on the other hand, were… seedy, dank, and given to the kind of raunchy, fecal spectacle featured on “Shit on Me.” Stylistically, The Big Boys were funky and versatile and could rhythmically turn on a dime, whereas The Dicks sounded like they had never mastered the faster tempos of hardcore, and were at their best and scariest when they could jam out on a strutting, bluesy groove.
“Shit on Me” is one of the highlights of Live at Raul’s, a live split album between these two bands(that was subsequently reissued in the worst possible vinyl format, the double 7”). Raw, ineptly bashed-out, and drowned in bar-band guitar noodling, “Shit on Me” is ridiculously catchy, dirty, and quintessentially punk. As far away from the morbid ecological musings of Tragedy and the weight-lifting anthems of Youth of Today as one can get, here,The Dicks speak for the damnés de la terre—the utterly degraded—and sing the unconquerable human spirit. But am I making too much of this? As the song lurches into the slow, chunky ranting at which The Dicks so excel, the lyric “shit on me” changes imperceptibly from a descriptive lament into a defiant, Caliban-esque gesture of embracing the filth with which society identifies you. Not that singer Gary Floyd needed to prove to anyone that he “knows how to curse.”
Finally, this is a great song because it returns subversiveness to several things that have long since “lost their edge”: the recent Republican-friendly gay marriage bill in New York probably would not have taken as its anthem any song with the shouted lyrics “I’m a child of sodomy!” But the song and band must have stuck out even within their subcultural enclave. In the midst of 1980s hardcore’s maxim that “loud fast rules,” there is something especially unnerving and bitingly aggressive about (what is, at essence) such an unabashed, tuneful pop song being the medium for all of this blasphemous filth. The Dicks make the hyper-aggressive clamor and indecipherable (but predictable) rage of suburban thrash seem positively tame and family-friendly by comparison.
[originally posted on noisey.com]
Nailbiter- Abused LP (2003)
The other day I was in a record store, dressed in my far-from-punk “everyday” clothes, and about to purchase some very un-hardcore 1970’s soft rock, when I became aware of the presence of a gaggle of youngish hardcore dudes flipping through the new arrival bin nearby. They were audibly nerding out, trying to impress each other, and throwing out the periodic “Do you have *this*?” I decided unwisely to join in. “Excuse me, good sirs, but I couldn’t help but overhear that you are a group of hardcore enthusiasts… perchance are any of you so unfortunate as not to have [classic early 2000s hardcore LP]?” I held out an album that they had all evidently flipped past. I soon realized my mistake. They were uninterested, they had it on mp3 but weren’t interested in shelling out $8, they preferred nowadays bands… I felt as though I were a dapper gentleman recommending Duke Ellington to a bunch of back-to-Africa free jazz cats in the 1960s.
Point being: a decade is a strange time in the life of a record. For those who bought it the first time around, the music is still situated in the context and associations of that time, much as dinosaur DNA is trapped within an insect suspended in amber in “Jurassic Park”—it is too much entangled in some other entity to get at the thing-itself. On the other hand, the cycle of reviving trends and reissues runs much longer than a decade, so newer and younger fans will just find it passé, not even threatening or contemporary. When I got into hardcore, this was how I felt about bands like Spazz and Nausea: not old enough to be classics, but still the “old guard” in relation to the cool new bands.
The band I want to present today… was never cool. Nailbiter came out of London (but with members from Italy and Brazil) in the early 2000s with two split releases (a 7” with Viimeinen Kolonna, an LP with Destruccion) and an LP (“Abused”), before dissolving amidst rumors of an ill-fated stylistic departure (read: the dreaded classic rock trajectory). They have recently reunited and played a few shows in Europe, this being the occasion for the reissue of their early material by UK label La Vida Es Un Mus. But as unsold copies of their LP can still be found sitting in New York record stores, such a reissue is perhaps unwarranted stateside. Nonetheless, any chance to revisit this unappreciated classic is welcome.
I can only speculate as to why Nailbiter were never more popular. They must have been an odd fit within the British punk scene, since their music is resolutely “international” (dominated by Swedish and Japanese influences). Matters were surely not helped by the confusing cover art of their most widely distributed record: a Boris Vallejo fantasy illustration of a naked woman standing in the fiery maw of an armored demon. On top of this, song-titles like “Dribbling Hunter” and “Steel and Stone” only reinforced the Conan the Barbarian aesthetic. This couldn’t have been more out of step with the audience at the time. Why couldn’t they have just given us photos of napalm victims and lyrics about George W. Bush? A black-and-white photo of the band wearing bullet belts with crimped and bleached hair wouldn’t have hurt. They could have sold millions!
One can only postulate that Nailbiter didn’t find an audience due to these superficial aesthetic reasons, because their music is the coolest thing imaginable. Their sound is basically a combination of the over-the-top guitar leads and distorted vocals of Japanese hardcore bands like Death Side, with the chugging metallic grind of later Anti-Cimex (whose song “Daughters of Pride” is covered here, making the comparison official). Nailbiter were simultaneously a) a masterful blend of somewhat obscure and foreign influences, and b) the least subtle band in existence. This is immense, head-banging, orc-bashing metal punk—something like if High on Fire dug Battalion of Saints instead of Celtic Frost. It’s fun, it’s ridiculous, it’s larger than life, and yet never corny or bombastic. Somehow a song like “No Return” manages to be both lumbering and bouncy simultaneously. The least I can say is, it is better than a hundred other records attempting the same fantasy Motör-punk vibe. I rank them higher than Sacrilege, an obvious predecessor and “classic.” My review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the guitar solos here, which are are somewhere in between those of Bathory and Ace Frehley. They are truly memorable and rocking instead of (as is so often the case) strained by-the-books contortions to remind me that they are rocking and to reinforce some overwrought aesthetic. Now is perhaps the time to say that the band’s subsequent material (demo-only), which took a more Thin Lizzy direction, is totally awesome for precisely that reason, although never likely to endear them to an already-wary hardcore audience. These leaden, unattractive crustlords were not doing their “musical careers” any favors; on the other hand, riffs this huge don’t get written every day.
I have this problem: I listen to Bad Religion constantly. Well, Suffer, No Control, and Against the Grain. (My thoughts on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? will have to wait.) Once I listen to one of this trilogy, I inevitably play all three for a week. This despite finding Bad Religion pretentious, politically misguided, one-dimensional, corny, poser-y, and anti-art. The grossest thing is to imagine Bad Religion writing their Bad Religion songs and patting themselves on their backs for throwing in these superfluous “oooh” and “aaah” harmonies—“Can you believe we wrote another killer harmony? We’re like the Beach Boys… only punk!” It’s disgusting, along with every other affected “rock” element that the band throws in to ensure my Cali-fresh good time.
It’s entirely possible to situate your experience of Bad Religion solely at the level of Greg Graffin’s lyrical delivery: the uncensored verbal spillover of this smarmy, middle-class, wisdom-dispensing, creepy, utterly insipid “hardcore guy who grew up but is still into the values.” What’s disgusting here is Bad Religion’s vision of a positively-given human potential (embodied in the spontaneous good-heartedness of the young) which is being crushed and manipulated and bought out and perverted by external cultural string-pullers behind the scenes, or by technological automation and homogeneity. Hence the preponderance of lyrics about “why don’t you see?” “when you will try to change?” “wake up,” etc. etc. Of course, this image of a full, meaningful life obstructed by a “bad” modernity is not only a tired cliché, but a deeply conservative one. To Bad Religion, we are all trapped in our suburban, willingly-deceived, pill-popping apathy. Politics, I suppose, is only what would HAPPEN if people heard Bad Religion and “looked around” for the first time. It is utterly inconceivable to Bad Religion that somewhere people are already violently struggling for their freedom without having been freed from their cave of malaise and misapprehension by some idiotic punk song. One begins to suspect that it is the members of Bad Religion who need to “wake up and look around,” i.e. leave the white suburbs of southern California.
Their vision of liberation is equally banal: the boy with “too many toys” or the “automatic man”—all they need to do really is “go against the grain,” follow the beat of their own drum, etc. But in fact this HAS been the cultural trajectory of the past 20 years: the cheap consolation of self-expression and individuality, our private “ethics of consumption.” If (in the words of No Control’s opener) “what we needed” in the late 1980s was a “change of ideas,” that vision has come to full fruition in our culture of non-conformist liberal eco-awareness. The nightmare of the global present is that it in many ways is the world dreamed up by Bad Religion’s purely feelings-oriented “politics.” (Of course this Manichean worldview still posits a religious fringe as the irrational, stubborn block obstructing our mental liberation.) It’s the shittiest possible cynicism, the “one sane person” who sees other people as drones without real dreams, completely pacified by TV and Reagan.
Their utterly juvenile worldview aside, the music hardly seems to offer a more sophisticated opening for appreciation. Isn’t it just the most basic, by-the-numbers, not very fast pop-punk? Musically, it’s certainly not on par with the Bad Brains or Youth of Today or Rudimentary Peni or Gauze: the music is entirely predictable, often verging on self-parody.
Wherein lies the appeal, then? (Aside from the spiteful pleasure in hearing Greg Graffin mispronounce his own pretentious lyrics, like “beatitude” and “quixotic”…) I like to think of the band as a counter-Nirvana. If Nirvana were the extremely photogenic, complex, and emotionally dark band whose angst about fame was a riveting (and very real) drama, Bad Religion are the autistic D&D nerds who really aren’t good-looking enough to be famous, who can’t ever “inhabit” their lifelong careers as rock musicians, whose attempt to make “real music” (the Into the Unknown album) was a famous failure. So, where did this flurry of creative production come from? These three albums, released in three years, are propelled by an immediacy, a catchiness, a dedication to never boring the listener—in short, by a total detachment from the “artistic personality” that is always pointing to its own depths. If Bad Religion lack the grit and personality of NOTA or Agnostic Front, there is in fact an obscure passion at work here: an unpleasant, grating, even awkward urgency… contorting itself into a strained, verbose catchiness voided of personal charm.
I think we all know “this guy,” the correlate to the anti-art just described. You don’t want to date him. And the peek behind the curtain—reading his diary, let’s say—is EXACTLY what you expected. But there is a paradoxical kind of inert fecundity churning in that mind—a nerdy, aggressive acerbic (yet simple) outlook that is, as on the cover of Suffer, burning, furiously sharpening itself without getting anywhere. But isn’t this basically a Wagnerian type: Alberich? If you view all of Bad Religion as a dramatic monologue by just such a character, it is really a gripping drama.
Best Swedish Hardcore 7”s: Mob 47
This is the first entry in a series of posts on Swedish hardcore EPs. Having been a student of Swedish hardcore for many years, it is my scholarly finding that the Mob 47 EP (“Kärnvapen Attack”) is the finest outcome of the Discharge influence from those northern climes. But what sets Mob 47 (pronounced in Swedish, it rhymes with “shoe”) above such fantastic groups as Anti-Cimex, Shitlickers, Absurd, Disarm, No Security, and S.O.D.? It is this very question that necessitates a series of posts instead of a scattered appreciation. All these bands are beloved and their records are much sought-after, but I have often felt that Swedish hardcore lacks the individuation characteristic of other national traditions—especially the lesser bands. Since the Discharge influence is so dominant, there is very little “wiggle room” in which to differentiate, say, S.O.D. from Avskum from Svart Parad. Not that it can’t be done, but the fineness of the distinction deprives the fan of the either/or element that is bound up with “cult bands.” The difference between Disarm and Asocial simply doesn’t amount to the same thing as the difference between Suicidal Tendencies and Jerry’s Kids. Perhaps that is as it should be, but the goal of this series is to flesh out these bands, through… what else? Critical listening!
So, to begin with, what makes the Mob 47 EP such a striking classic?
1) The guitar tone. Here is a video of guitarist and mastermind Åke demonstrating the set-up he uses.
What interests me about the Mob 47 guitar sound is that it is intentionally thin when compared to the other Swedes. If I may employ an analogy, Mob 47’s guitar tone is to the MC5’s Back in the USA album what the Shitlickers are to Ron Asheton’s guitar on Fun House: razor-sharp, lacking all low-end, “bright,” as compared to the sound of a car engine back-firing or a rusty chainsaw. The double-tracked guitars of Mob 47 add an antique static that attaches to the riffs rather than separating out into an ambient haze, as less-fastidiously-achieved distortion is apt to do.
In truth, this guitar sound is much nearer to Discharge (the pinnacle of d-beat hardcore) than to the Swedish bands to whom we owe the distinctively nastier and heavier “Swedish” sound. For comparison, the intro riff/chord of “Res Dig Mot Överheten” (beginning at 2:20) is virtually identical to Discharge’s “Society’s Victim.” Don’t forget that Åke was in the original “Dis-” band, Discard! [On the 2xCD Mob 47 discography, one of the great pleasures is to listen to the several Discharge covers, which are in my opinion as close as anyone ever got to absolutely cloning the masters.] To be specific, I think the Mob 47 sound is closest to the “Fight Back” EP, rather than the more Motorhead-y “Realities of War” or the more-produced Hear Nothing album. The Shitlickers, on the other hand, are much closer to “Never Again.”
2) The vocals. Over their career, Mob 47 have a number of different singers: Jögge, Tommy (from Crudity), Robban, Mentis. I like the Tommy songs, since many of them are in English (“Racist Regime,” “Stop the Slaughter,” “Why Must They Die?”), but all of the songs on the EP are in Swedish (with the exception of the two words in the title of “Animal Liberation”).
Unlike Crude SS or Asocial or Svart Parad, whose vocals are all a kind of hoarse monotone, or the later raspy scream of No Security and Totalitär, Mob 47 retain what I can only call the “Swedish Chef” style of hardcore vocalizing. Not that they sound quite like Muppets, but Mob 47 are distinctly cramming-in a ton of umlauts and soft “j”s. And these are being yelled (complete with voice-cracks), not screamed or growled. It is utterly charming, and it is virtually unique in a genre of tough bellowing. This also makes Mob 47 somewhat inimitable. Later groups who are clearly going for this style, such as Krigshot or Massgrav, give up the game immediately when it comes to the vocals, so that they reproduce the speed and format of Mob 47 songs with none of the charm.
Of special note is “Animal Liberation,” which consists of far too many syllables shoved into each line, a kind of anti-melody, periodic slurred growls (like the sound one makes while moving furniture), and a half-English, half-Swedish chorus. It’s more reminiscent of Crass than anything, and it’s impossible to imagine any other Swedish band pulling it off.
3) Style. Just by looking at pictures of the guitarist’s leather jacket, you can see that Mob 47 go beyond the UK spikey-punk influences that are most apparent in Scandinavian hardcore: Lärm, B.G.K., D.R.I., M.D.C., the Neos, and the Wretched are all represented next to the inevitable Discharge and Mau Maus logos. Not that Mob 47 is AT ALL a melange of various international influences… Thankfully you cannot actually HEAR any M.D.C. on this record! It is just that most of those bands are among the fastest 80s groups, indicating where Mob 47’s signal contribution lies: in being the fastest of the Swedish Discharge bands. I only want to suggest that this is not a QUANTITATIVE distinction, a matter of raw beats-per-minute, but rather a QUALITATIVE distinction, showing the influence of international hardcore bands *within* the confines of the Discharge style. And it’s worth noting that while Lärm and D.R.I. are basically gimmick-bands (their speed being the only thing to remark about them), Mob 47’s speed is set within a more interesting context and is much more successful.
4) Song-writing. This is a strange category to bring up for a band that has more or less just one style of song, one dominant influence, and one tempo… but I think it’s the key to the whole thing. The riffs, the propulsive rush, the catchiness, the scattered squealing solos, the pacing, the minimal variety that exists: this all adds up to *something.* Compare especially to any other band playing this fast—Krigshot, Ferocious X, the above-mentioned Lärm, or any “fastcore” band on Six Weeks Records, and you’ll see that Mob 47 are doing something special and, above all, memorable. Here’s a band whose discography runs to two full-length CDs, and yet if I spoke Swedish, I imagine I would know all these song-titles and little bursts as individually as I know Discharge and Negative Approach songs. So, while the music is obviously “formulaic,” you never get the feeling that a song was “passed” for merely meeting the formula. EVERY song “works.” Mob 47 are unlike a great many d-beat bands in that their recorded output is never just so many minutes of war haiku and stolen riffs reorganized and assembled.
It’s ridiculous to say, but what sets Mob 47 apart is that it feels like they “wrote” these “songs,” which strikes one as in any case an excessive labor. I am reminded of the famous Borges story, “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote,” in which a 20th-century symbolist poet “writes” several fragments of Don Quixote that are verbatim reproductions of the original text, but accompanied by great and exaggerated artistic birthing-pains and a “surplus” of profundity. As silly as it is, when Borges glosses the “differences” between the (identical) texts, one can’t help but nod: there is something “extra” present in the laborious and partial second writing. Mob 47 are this same way: this simplistic and ridiculously fast music copied strictly from the Discharge template doesn’t need to be “composed” in order to hold together and convey the basic effect, but then there IS an unlocatable and yet appreciable difference between Mob 47 and (let’s say) Gloom or Frigora, in terms of what one can only call “songwriting.” Needless to say, though we can only think of this difference in this way, I am very skeptical that things occurred this way in the actual process; I don’t think Ake sat down at a piano and scored these compositions with a quill pen…
Human Bastard- War of the Lords EP (2005)
There is an interesting scene in the Metallica “making-of” documentary Some Kind of Monster, where the label guy Cliff Burnstein drops by the studio to check up on Elektra Records’ investment and hear the progress the band has made on Saint Anger. He puts on his “rockin’ out” face as Metallica plays all of the tracks off the big Pro Tools monitor.
You realize immediately that no one in this room could possibly enjoy this abrasive, unpleasant, and bizarrely uncommercial music. Metallica are making it as therapy for themselves: not because they feel the world needs this music, but because they will “feel better” once they have gone through the process. The record itself is disposable to them. Certainly they are not making the album for their fans: to the members of Metallica, “fans” are needy bundles of expectations that just want to confine and pigeonhole the group. Cliff Burnstein, on the other hand, is an old weirdo whose job is not to encourage Metallica on their spiritual quest, but to make money. He is concerned about the “fans,” but in a special way.
It doesn’t matter if Cliff Burnstein enjoys the album himself: what matter is the experience of an imaginary third party, the person who might buy this album. However, far from being a “regulative concept” in a Kantian sense, deprived of all content and merely a mass of buying-power, this figment of Cliff Burnstein’s imagination is instead a fully fleshed-out psychological construct. The “listener” that Cliff Burnstein is conjuring up has all the depth of character of an Othello or a Humbert Humbert. How does he dress? What other similar albums did he buy? What lyrical content will he hearken to? What does he expect from the band? How much of a departure will he tolerate? How much will he pay for it? What does the art need to look like in order to draw him in?
And the entire experience is being curated for this non-extistent person. In the same way, I once heard that a women’s retailer (Anne Klein, I believe) had constructed an ideal personage, “Anne,” against whom every decision was evaluated. Would “Anne” wear this dress or was it too low-cut? “Anne” was a definitely classed woman of a certain age, a certain income, a certain middle-brow lifestyle, who was un-neurotic and yet pulled-together, etc. etc. “Anne” was not only the ideal consumer, but very likely the life-ideal OF the actual (slob) consumers who were trying to buy into this image and this life.
I think that in listening to a new record—when we take something home from the store and spin it for the first time, or when browsing on YouTube or music blogs, or just downloading a passel of mp3s and then sorting them out—we often behave this way. We turn our own listening experience into that of an imaginary third-party.
Compare the following two situations: 1) throwing on a favorite record in order to have something on while doing the dishes or making coffee; and 2) listening to a new record which you have just downloaded for free off a blog. I don’t just want to say that these are “objectively” different activities: the media are obviously different… rather, they are subjectively different—our minds and ears are working differently in each case.
1) Let’s say I am playing one of my favorite hardcore 7”s from the 2000s, War of the Lords by Spanish d-beaters Human Bastard.
- I am not monitoring myself. My attention is on the dishes or grinding my coffee, not on studying my own response to the music. If I start tapping my foot, maybe I won’t even notice. My attention might even lapse in and out. It is certainly not a duty to myself to evaluate the music and be a critic. Maybe I will sing along—this is the height of un-self-consciousness. It’s hard to make out the lyrics to Human Bastard, but I know at least, “Day…. of the wolves’…. RE-VENGE.”
- I know what is coming up. If there is a boring song, I will skip it, and not hold it against the record. (On Joanna Newsom’s album Have One on Me, I never listen to the title track; it isn’t a “bad song” that detracts from the album, because it simply doesn’t exist for me.) If a good part is coming up, I will particularly pay attention. In short, I can prepare my experience for its own highs and lows. In the aforementioned “(Day of the) Wolves Revenge” [sic], there is a long guitar solo that drops out into really grandiose palm-muted chugging… only to slyly re-emerge and continue with true cock-rock aplomb. If I have to run upstairs or leave the room while this part is on, I will go back and play it again. The verses to any of these songs, on the other hand, are all interchangeable, not at all requiring rapt attention.
- I don’t care what style the record is in. Well, perhaps peripherally, in the sense of raw volume and mood, I won’t blast Human Bastard at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But it is no good telling myself, “It sounds just like Warcollapse!” because at this point, Warcollapse and Human Bastard are as different as can be: Warcollapse wrote those songs, whereas Human Bastard wrote these songs. In the same way, perhaps, the Rolling Stones’ “That’s How Strong My Love Is” might be interchangeable with any other number of Otis Redding covers… but when you want to listen to THAT SONG, no other will do. To tell me at this point that it is a “British Invasion R&B cover” is absolutely pointless. Test this out for yourself: put on your favorite album. Do you care that it is in-the-style-that-it-is-in? Is anyone that shallow? I happen to like this sort of Swedish barking crust, and that is of course a sorting mechanism: when confronted with S.D.S. and some polka music, I will of course give S.D.S. more of a chance. But, as it turns out that I don’t like S.D.S., and I love Human Bastard, this is indeed a “vanishing mediator.”
- I let the parts I like “take” me. That is to say, there is no skepticism. The necessary flipside to this is, I don’t expect some flight of melody to intervene where perhaps it jarringly *should* but nevertheless does not. Human Bastard are a fairly strict genre band, but when I was younger and listening to Iron Maiden or Sleater-Kinney records for the first time, I can remember being violently annoyed by their melodies, which I felt should very much have gone in some other direction. I learned to love those records and to enjoy those parts—the reason I’m not a musician is for this very reason that I can’t imagine melodies differently!! (This is the qualitative version of the second bullet-point above, which is quantitative.)
Things are completely otherwise, though, if I am either Cliff Burnstein, sitting in Metallica’s studio trying to size-up the sales potential of the Saint Anger album, or myself trying to figure out if 10 albums, downloaded one after another, are worth keeping on my computer. I monitor myself; I listen to the record impatiently, in ten second intervals; I skip around if I don’t immediately like what I hear; I leap at every “sounds like…”
In other words, “I” am not having this experience, I am watching someone else have it (someone else I have to produce imaginatively). It’s not even myself wearing my “critic’s hat,” for the very reason that this “critic’s” experience could only have an instrumental aim that would be *my own* listening. And obviously the only way to do this is just to do it, to jump in with MY ears. I have always argued that this latter evaluation is how we should be critics in the first place. The detached, “critic’s hat” only evaluates an unreal, artificial experience that takes place in a speculative nowhere.
To tack on an ending to this: what sets Human Bastard apart from the legions of mediocre crust-core bands is their ability to write “hit songs,” such as the mega-catchy “After the Last Bombs” (from the EP of the same title), “Burning Time” (from their split with Article Nine), or “Living in Hell” here. I have written enough about my preference for hits over non-hits elsewhere, but like Totalitär before them, every Human Bastard record is worth tracking down for *particular songs*. In the end, this makes them a much more interesting band than, say, A.G.E. or Atrocious Madness.
To be perfectly explicit: the only way that bands WITHOUT hits can succeed is through everything I mentioned above. Bands without hits “sound like…” other good bands; their production is super-interesting; they front-load their records with the one or two best songs; they release concept albums that are pretentious gimmicks; etc. etc.
And all of this appeals to.. whom? No one, in the end. Because they are directed at a listener who fundamentally does not exist, or who exists only for the time necessary to verbalize to himself the critical cliches inscribed in the very object itself. Human Bastard, on the other hand, succeed because they wrote memorable songs.
Born Dead Icons
We’ve all dated boring people, and justified this to ourselves in various ways. The death sentence is to say that someone is merely “nice,” meaning: not interesting, not funny, just… pleasant. But mostly what it is like to date a boring person is to wait, and wait, for the light switch to be turned on. One becomes a real observer: is he/she going to say something smart? Was that a joke? Maybe he/she meant something clever by this innocuous remark!
More likely, we repeat to ourselves (as a tormented soliloquy) what we disingenuously pawn off as the experience to onlookers: “Oh, you just have to get to know his/her sense of humor. He/she is actually really funny. You all will get along.”
Putting on a mediocre record in any genre is a lot like this. It’s the opposite of falling in love, which just grabs you and doesn’t wait for rationalization. Instead: we wait, we listen, we make excuses, we become critics. Nothing could be more dissimilar than the experience A) of putting on a record and sitting down in front of it to ask, “Is this good? How am I going to review this? Does it get a pass? How am I going to rank it on a scale of 1-10?”—compared to the experience B) of catching some tune in the background, and asking the clerk, “What is this!?”
Obviously we *have* to do this former thing. We have to give records a 7/10 or a 6/10. For me, this is work that no one else can do for me, actually. I want to hear as much music as possible, at all times, and even universal acclaim is no guarantee that something will be worthwhile. Nothing gets a free pass. And so the experience of a life within culture is one long slog through mediocrity.
This blog and my taste has an apparent Platonic bias: “Only the absolutely good!” The mistake would be to imagine that this is something that could be positively given, as though every record doesn’t come to us with the same credentials and PR and hype. Finally, everything has to go through the same tiresome procedure of being listened to. I am not in some ivory tower waiting for an “obvious masterpiece” to come walking through a tiny, gilded door. (Anyways, this is the real meaning of Platonism, which is an endless parsing.)
On the other hand, when this does happen, it is completely obvious.
Example: Born Dead Icons are decent enough. I just listened to two of their albums to write this post, and if you stare directly at their music, giving the experience all the “space” it requires, there are all the necessary parts to convince oneself that the band is not making any missteps, that they are executing their chosen genre well, that they are consistent, etc. etc.
The problem is that there was a contemporaneous band (Inepsy) from the same place as Born Dead Icons (Montreal) doing the exact same thing (Motorhead-influenced apocalyptic crust-rock) as Born Dead Icons…only much better. ANY classic Inepsy song blows away EVERY Born Dead Icons song. It’s as though BDI had all the parts, and just forgot to add the final ingredient: being an interesting band. But none of this is evident when I am just intently “being a critic” and trying to evaluate the record. But it is ludicrously obvious when an Inepsy song is thrown into juxtaposition.
Born Dead Icons: plagued by bad vocals, a lack of catchy choruses, a “rock” style that never really gets down to rocking, embarrassing lyrics as far as I can make out (whereas Motorhead have great lyrics, and Inepsy’s are at least charming), an absence of blazing leads or really anything attention-grabbing. It’s not over-the-top, it’s not arty, it’s not melodic. Non-hit follows non-hit. Some huge hook always looms on the horizon but never materializes. Big Motorhead chord-progressions serve as placeholders instead of actual “moments.” They turn plaintive at all the wrong times.
My point here: all of this would be enigmatic and curious, and worth peering further into, to see if there were artistic depths to be mined here… if Inepsy did not come along and demolish BDI at *exactly the same thing.*
We’ve all dated boring people and talked ourselves into believing that something else is happening. But this difficulty in knowing what to call our experience (being bored? or mildly amused? or are we “still getting to know” the person?) is our own damn problem. The critical brackets we have thrown up around the object are simply waiting to be demolished by the very real fecundity of life, art, and love.